Surekha Ragavan
Dec 10, 2021

‘Meritocracy and equity are not interchangeable’: Mediabrands DEI head

Dharesheni Nedumaran on the lack of understanding around equity, creating actual safe spaces for employees, and why local historical context is extremely necessary.

Dharesheni Nedumaran
Dharesheni Nedumaran

One of Dharesheni Nedumaran’s roles as head of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) at Mediabrands APAC is to stamp out the idea that the benefits of DEI are circumscribed to people. Instead, she wants everyone to understand that the benefits accrue to all aspects of business and society as well. Her ultimate ambition in her new role is to have a positive impact on society through progressive goals, which the marcomms industry is predisposed to do through the act of storytelling.

“Marcomms has the beautiful ability to tell stories,” Nedumaran told Campaign Asia-Pacific. “And in doing so, we have the opportunity to change how society operates. But we have to keep asking ourselves the questions: Are our stories diverse? Are our stories equitable? Are our stories inclusive? We have to be careful not to proliferate the dangers of a single storyline.”

The process of DEI

At Mediabrands, DEI goals tie into four pillars: how employees are treated internally; how a ‘product’ reaches consumers; how the network works with clients; and how DEI influences society overall. KPIs are also set against diversity and inclusion; tracking around equity is currently focussed on action as  KPIs are not yet formalised. One of Nedumaran’s tasks as a new leader is to put in place a 'listening strategy' to understand the network’s gaps and weak points so that more attention can be placed in those areas.

A challenge for anyone who does DEI work, Neduamaran said, is to localise projects and priorities based on market-specific needs. Each market may position issues differently based on culture and language, and research in Asia still leans towards being more Western-centric. She said:

It's about understanding that each market has different histories. And to do good DEI work, we have to understand the context in which DEI exists, and the understanding of history comes into that.

To circumvent these challenges, Mediabrands' 'listening staretgy' includes an analysis of each market to identify underrepresented groups. This is then compared against available research and statistics in that area. Some markets, Nedumaran observed, are a lot more ready to have conversations about certain topics compared to others, and sometimes a certain amount of “reading between the air” is needed if an issue is not explicitly being spoken about.

“In Australia, an underrepresented group that we want to push the needle the most on is people of First Nations,” she said. “Whereas in India, it’s a great deal about gender equity. And in Malaysia, one of our representation goals is to include more people with disabilities.”

Regulatory complexities may also come into play when designing policies as these differ widely across the region. For example, legislation still exists in parts of Asia that are counter-intuitive to providing a safe space for LGBTQIA+ people—such as the penal code in Malaysia that criminalises same-sex relations. On top of that, some factions of Asian culture may depict LGBTQIA+ issues in varying storylines. For instance, in Indian history and storytelling, the presence of non-binary people has existed for centuries.

“When we talk and think about LGBTQIA+ conversations, we have to always make sure that these conversations are safe for our people in market,” said Nedumaran. “For the people on the ground, you don't want that moment where somebody feels like ‘since my company is talking about it, I'm going to come out’ and then we've created an unsafe environment for that person by not doing the safety work first.”

Naturally, with languages and context in APAC being so diverse, it’s also important to take into consideration which local training partners are able to deliver content that meets local nuances.

“For example, I may use the word ‘queer’ but that word has such different meanings. That word used to be a little bit ruder or insulting if you're talking to people who might be of a slightly older age group. But in fact, it’s the ideal word to use for people who might be of a younger age,” said Nedumaran.

When it comes to implementing progressive DEI practices at Mediabrands, Nedumaran collaborates with HR, leadership, and comms across many projects, but she stressed that DEI work at the ground level has the most impact on employees. Having said that, the role of leadership in spearheading the cause is vital.

“If leaders don't walk the talk, DEI is not going to trickle down to every aspect of the business. Leaders need to [lead inclusively] first. And then comes the building of trust, and the ability for [employees] to see that this is something we're serious about,” she said.

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The reframing of equality vs equity

When Campaign Asia-Pacific ran an industry study with Kantar earlier this year, one of the biggest pain points cited by respondents was companies putting in place adequate policies, yet the needle failing to move.

Nedumaran said that while the industry can keep putting policies in place, we have to acknowledge that inequities have already been built into our systems before people enter the workforce.

“And it’s important for businesses to understand this because by having to serve consumers, they are automatically creating spaces where people who would not normally mix are starting to mix. So there is huge power in businesses to start partnering. While I do think governments will need to do the biggest amount of the work, businesses can influence government policies and progress society in the end," she said.

One mistake that organisations make in this area, according to Nedumaran, is implementing policy before committing time to education and creating safe spaces for employees. For instance, if a company puts in place a gender affirmation policy, education around marginalised genders first needs to happen. Otherwise, a policy might merely exist for the sake of good PR.  

“When you put one policy in favour, there's a ripple effect that requires education, implementation and correcting other policies to make sure the first policy is sound,” she said. “It is gaps like these that makes DEI work important. We've been talking about it for 30 or 40 years now, and yet, this is why we’ve not moved the needle that much.”

Leaders and employees in the industry also need to be educated on inequity built into social hierarchies and economic systems. This could ultimately lead to less pushback when policies aimed at underrepresented groups are implemented.  

“For a long time, the common buzzword was diversity and inclusion. And then it became diversity, equity and inclusion; or diversity, equity and belonging; or diversity, equity, belonging and culture. It's becoming a bit of an alphabet soup. But it has to be that way because we’re addressing a complex phenomenon,” said Nedumaran.

Equity may be a newer conversation piece in this cause, but the industry needs to build a better understanding around how inequity is presented. While sometimes diversity quotas may be perceived as the opposite of meritocracy, Nedumaran herself is “all for diversity quotas”, which she said may be controversial to others. And in some cases, she has advised that quotas are what must be done in the short-term before picking up the work required to get a company to its target eventually. She said:

Meritocracy is a really interesting word when you use it together with equity. Because part of meritocracy is the assumption that people have the same starting point.

“If we want to create outcomes that are equitable, we have to also consider that everyone has different starting points and [accessibility], we have to consider how we can create equity even before they enter the workplace and how we’re building it in the long run. One might think that meritocracy and equity are interchangeable, but they’re not," she added. 

When it comes to measuring DEI, Nedumaran said that tracking human behaviour in itself hasn’t been ideally operationalised and in that regard, can become a complex issue. Often, diversity is tracked through identifications that are physically visible which means that areas such as neurodiversity may not be trackable. One way around this is self-identification surveys that can be anonymously done by employees; this allows employees to safely identify however they want to without worrying about how they physically and legally present themselves.

An important point that Nedumaran made is that companies cannot just track diversity, or they risk exploiting DEI as a tick-in-a-box exercise.

“If you track diversity and inclusion, you get a much better sense of belonging among employees,” she said. “When someone’s hiring, they might say ‘she's a woman, we need to meet a diversity target so let's just hire her’. In the end, you will be asking employees if their company has created an environment where they feel like they can bring their differences to the table and influence things. That’s why having multiple data points gives us a richer storyline and stops us from falling into a trap of check boxes.”

Along the way, companies will inevitably make mistakes, but Nedumaran said it’s equally important to own up to them. She added: “I think this is how businesses should approach DEI work; we can’t pretend that we know everything.”

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